When memory loss is more than forgetfulness

August 25, 2015 Providence Health Team

How many times have you walked into a room only to forget what you went in there for? Or, maybe you routinely misplace your keys and glasses. People tend to minimize forgetfulness – even joke about it – because it happens to everyone. But when is forgetfulness a sign of a more serious memory problem like cognitive impairment or dementia?

Age-related forgetfulness

Just as your body changes as you age, so does your brain. It takes longer to learn new things, and it can be more challenging to recall events or words – known as the “tip-of-the-tongue” phenomenon.

Occasional forgetfulness is normal at any age. And, mild memory problems and a decline in cognitive skills often come with getting older. It only becomes worrisome when it starts to interfere with your daily life.

Health-related forgetfulness and memory loss

Physical causes

Brain infections, clots or tumors can cause forgetfulness and temporary memory loss. So can thyroid, kidney and liver disorders. Fortunately, most of these conditions are treatable, and memory can improve.

Other factors that may lead to memory problems include head trauma, chronic drug and alcohol abuse, heavy cigarette smoking, vitamin B-12 deficiency and sleep deprivation.

Leading a brain-healthy lifestyle – nutritious diet, exercise and social activity – significantly reduces the likelihood you’ll suffer symptoms of mental deterioration and dementia. Pay attention to physical and cognitive changes, and get regular check-ups to avert potential memory problems.

Emotional causes

Anxiety, depression and stress can make you more forgetful than usual. Sometimes symptoms even resemble dementia. If you’ve suffered great loss (like the death of a loved one) or are going through a major life change (messy divorce or recently retired), you may experience confusion and lapses in memory.

Symptoms are usually short-lived, however, and fade as circumstances (and emotions) normalize. Also, counseling or medication can help ease feelings of loneliness, sadness and anger. Check the side effects of any drugs taken to treat emotional symptoms, however, as they might actually trigger memory problems.

Medication causes

Some medicines interfere with key chemical messengers in the brain, and others depress signals within the central nervous system. Common prescription drugs that can adversely affect memory, both short-term and long-term, include:

  • Antianxiety drugs
  • Antidepressants
  • Antihistamines
  • Antiseizure drugs
  • Cholesterol-lowering statins
  • Hypertension drugs (beta-blockers)
  • Incontinence drugs
  • Narcotic painkillers
  • Parkinson’s drugs
  • Sleep aids

If you’re noticing unusual forgetfulness or memory loss, research your medications to determine whether they might be at fault. Especially in older adults, the build-up of some drugs in the system can lead to memory loss – not to mention increase the risk of falls, fractures and driving accidents.

Serious memory loss

Amnestic Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)

If your memory loss is noticeable – more than normal for your age – you could be suffering from amnestic MCI. People afflicted with it typically recognize their problems – as do others.

You still perform your daily activities with no problem. But, you tend to forget important events (appointments, meetings) and misplace or lose things frequently. You might also experience the frustrating tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon a little more than usual.

Though memory loss can worsen over time, not everyone who suffers from MCI will get Alzheimer’s disease. However, researchers and physicians are finding that more people with the impairment develop Alzheimer’s than those without.


The most common types of dementia are Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Both forms affect a person’s thinking, memory and reasoning skills.

With Alzheimer’s disease, the brain’s nerve cells become damaged and eventually die. The disease can progress slowly, but ultimately the patient requires total care. Vascular dementia is usually caused by stroke (or series of mini strokes) that damage blood supply to brain tissue.

Symptoms of dementia include:

  • Repeatedly asking the same questions
  • Confusion about people, places or time
  • Forgetting or mixing up everyday words
  • Getting lost or easily disoriented, even in familiar places
  • Inability to follow directions or instructions
  • Inability to recall events, or remember people
  • Placing household items in odd places (TV remote in the fridge)
  • Retelling a story in a short period of time
  • Sudden mood swings, or changes in behavior or personality
  • Taking a long time to complete familiar tasks

As symptoms worsen, dementia restricts your ability to accomplish daily activities, to recall memories, to communicate effectively and (in advanced stages) even recognize your loved ones.

When to See a Doctor

If you’re exhibiting signs of MCI or dementia, or you’re just concerned your memory loss is more than benign forgetfulness, don’t hesitate to consult your primary care provider. Your provider will conduct physical and mental tests to determine whether more in-depth neurological evaluation is necessary.

What to expect

Your provider might take blood and urine tests and review your medications to determine whether they could be culprits to your memory loss. You’ll likely take a series of memory, problem-solving and language tests. If needed, a CT scan or MRI will be ordered to rule out physical problems.

If testing confirms cognitive decline or dementia, you’ll likely be referred to an appropriate specialist (neurologist, psychologist or geriatrician) for treatment.

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